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Online threats should always be taken seriously

By Lacy Hilliard
Several months ago, a controversy erupted at Johnson County High School over an app called StreetChat. For those that are unaware, StreetChat enables users to anonymously post photos with captions in a forum designated to their specific high school. It didn’t take long for the posts to turn ugly. Hate was spewed using every vile word imaginable complete with photographs of the intended target.
The StreetChat incident inspired me to write two opinion editorials on the topic. It also motivated me to speak with school officials. Many of the school officials I spoke with were outraged and concerned while others clearly thought I was overreacting. One such official even asked while feigning concern, “Were you bullied in high school?” The tone with which the question was asked led me to expect that a “bless your heart“ would inevitably follow as it was a clear attempt to find a reason as to why I would involve myself in something they obviously considered unimportant.
Truth be told, the varied reactions caused me to take a step back and evaluate the root of my concern. I couldn’t seem to find an answer except that the level of hatred I played witness to made me uneasy.
By now, most everyone locally is familiar with the tragic deaths of Billie Jean Hayworth and Billy Payne. The couple was murdered in their Mountain City home in January of 2012, orphaning their infant son who lay in his mother’s arms as she took her last breath. I was tasked with providing Tomahawk coverage for both Marvin Potter’s trial as well as the recent joint trials of Barbara and Jenelle Potter. The entire family was charged and convicted on two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Hayworth and Payne.
Going through the rigors of the trials was one of the most challenging things I have ever done as a reporter. Many family members and friends of Hayworth and Payne attended the trials and their pain was palpable – so tangible, it seemed as though it should hang behind the prosecution in a cloudlike blue fog.
I learned many things throughout the trials. Overall, the experience reiterated that life is short and so very fragile. However, the tragic losses of Payne and Hayworth also taught me something unexpected. The circumstances under which they were murdered rekindled my passionate stance against bullying and confirmed, for me, that my reactions to the StreetChat postings were indeed warranted.
The majority of evidence presented by the prosecution in the State v. Barbara and Jenelle Potter was in the form of emails, Facebook postings and Topix postings. The hate and jealousy fueled postings composed by Jenelle Potter is what ultimately led to the murders of Payne and Hayworth. Because Jenelle lacked the gumption to post under her own name, she carried out the internet attacks under a persona she created. Perhaps ironically, Jenelle’s online personality is representative of the blanket of anonymity that the internet can provide to anyone that desires it.
It’s important that we all remember there’s a living, breathing human being behind the screen. As a society, we’ve been somewhat numbed to what would have been considered highly offensive and alarming not so very long ago and the internet is largely responsible for those jaded views. If someone is using the internet as a means to attack someone else, their intentions should always be questioned and any threats made should be taken seriously, regardless of age.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that 2 million adolescents in the United States attempt suicide each year. Of those 2 million, 700,000 of them received medical treatment as a result of their pursuit to end their own life. Peer victimization is proven to increase suicidal tendencies in both youth and adults.
I encourage everyone to report instances of bullying whether it is witnessed online or in person. At the very least, the victim will undoubtedly be relieved to have someone in his or her corner. At the most, a life could be saved.